CHRONICLES OF COMICS – SUPERMAN #140 – ‘THE SON OF BIZARRO!’

The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!

superman 140SUPERMAN #140 is easily the best Bizarro story of all time, and stands strongly as one of my favourite Supergirl stories. It’s one of Otto Binder and Wayne Boring’s greatest stories, and if you’re familiar with the work of the Silver Age comics legends, you know that’s saying something. Honestly, ‘The Son of Bizarro!’ is a perfect superhero comic that does everything pretty well everything right – it’s a cosmic, exciting, larger than life story of mythical proportions  centred around all of the biggest human concerns like family, destiny and our vain quest to feel special, beautiful or to belong. In short, it’s what all Superman comics should hold themselves to.

One of the most surprising things I’ve discovered reading Silver Age Superman stories is just how firmly entrenched the mythos was, so relatively early in the heroes history. The popular consensus with superhero comic fans seem to be that Lee/Kirby pretty well invented what we think of as the modern cape story with FANTASTIC FOUR, and though it’s undeniably true that we can’t begin to comprehend the effect Marvel in the ’60’s had to comic books of all kinds, the idea of continuity and real human drama is well present in mid-century DC, specifically in Binder’s work. Things certainly did play with a kind of dream-like logic, and the characterizations weren’t as deep as we’d later see, but the characters had a clear history, a history which could be used as a launch pad for very tragic stories.

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The wildest thing about this issue isn’t just how quickly DC had established a history and respected mythos for the Superman franchise, but for how quickly creators were subverting it. The idea behind ‘The Son of Bizarro!’ is that Bizarro Number 1 and Bizarro Lois Lane have had a child, not only their first, but the first for their race, who are actually nothing more than clones of the original imperfect duplicates of Superman and Lois Lane, created by Lex Luthor. Shockingly, the first born son bears little resemblance to his parents – he looks exactly like an Earthling baby. The Bizarro’s are shocked and saddened, but intent on loving their son regardless of how he looks. Unfortunately, the citizens of the square shaped planet are far less understanding, and demand that they remove this horrifying mark of ‘beauty’ from their proud and ugly world.

It’s amazing how sincerely Binder treats this story, and how much emotion he gets out of it as a result. Binder never looks down or acts above the Bizarro concept, and if anything, is able to greatly sympathize with the horror and weakness of giving birth to a ‘monster’. When the Bizarro’s launch their child out into space, we’re presented with a beautiful subversion of the Superman story. The Superman story is one of longing – that universal ache that we don’t really believe were we came from, that we might all be orphans, that no matter if we have a Ma or Pa Kent who loved us with all our hearts, we’ll never really know anything of our true home. But the Bizarro Baby is cast off not to be saved, as Kal was, but to be forgotten.

Binder is brilliant because he can be sympathetic while still keeping the Bizarros a true villain – it’s a weak and despicable act to abandon a child voluntarily, but at the same time, we don’t completely turn on them. Nothing takes more courage than raising a child, specifically one with added difficulties such as a disability or physical deformity. Throughout the story we’re reminded that the Bizarro parents did have immense amounts of love for their child, and that giving up their baby was no easy task, which makes things even more tragic.

But this isn’t just a Bizarro story – it’s also a fascinating Supergirl story. When the infant Bizarro is found by a kindly farming couple, he isn’t as lucky as Kal-El as to be adopted. Instead, he is brought to an orphanage, specifically Midvale Orphanage, where Supergirl is posing as Linda Lee and keeping her superhero identity a secret to the world, so that she may remain a secret weapon for Superman in the case of an epic crisis. When ‘Linda’ discovers the baby has superpowers similar to hers, she informs Superman, who informs her that not only will she be required to watch over the young baby and keep it’s powers a secret to others, but also that she must train it to be Superman’s eventual successor.

I think it’s pretty easy to read Supergirl’s ‘G-Gosh! What a super job!’ with a lot more stinging contempt than Binder may have intended. Or maybe Binder did know what he was doing – maybe he did see the inherent sexism in Supergirl’s relentless training and self sacrifice mean nothing once a male successor came along. Either way, it’s a fascinating look at the often unsettling gender politics of the ’50’s, problems that we still struggle to overcome.

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It isn’t long before the baby Bizarro begins to share the crackled white skin of his father, and when his home planet discovers he no longer looks like a beautiful human, they wage war on Earth, thinking Superman is holding him there against his will. The reality is that the precocious superpowered toddler used Luthor’s duplicator ray to create a Bizarro version of Supergirl, who refuses to return to the Bizarro planet, seeing the young Bizarro as her own child. Wayne Boring’s rendering of an army of Bizarro’s racing through space to literally run into Earth, splitting it in half, is darkly comic.

I think it’s important to note that, at this point, the ‘real’ Supergirl has been taking care of the baby as Linda Lee for some time now, and I think the Bizarro Supergirl’s actions do serve as a weird manifestation of Kara’s maternal instincts. It’s almost like Supergirl is challenged by her own possible future – if she continues to let Superman undermine her, to remain hiding in secret and serving as his secret weapon, she may wind up in a traditional mother role. Not that a role like that is a bad thing, but I don’t think it’s the one Kara wants for herself, and I think that’s what makes the Bizarro Supergirl so terrifying.

The story ends with another weird flip on the Superman mythology – Superman uses the imperfect duplicator ray on a pile of Kryptonite, which creates Blue K, which weakens the Bizarro’s just as the Green variety does Superman. As is often the case with Superman, he only really uses the Blue K to weaken the Bizarro’s to the point where he can talk to them. He explains that Bizarro children are simply born looking like people, and that they quickly evolve into the ‘ugly’ form the strange race cherishes so dearly. The issue closes with the Bizarro Supergirl accidentally flying too close to the Blue Kryptonite and dying, as Supergirl looks on and ponders the fairness of her duplicate’s short and bizarre existence. It’s a pretty existential and moody ending, Supergirl flying through space, looking down at a dead, imperfect clone of herself.

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One of the most amazing things about SUPERMAN #140 is just how much story he packs into one comic. We’re lucky if we get this much material in one trade paperback nowadays, and even though I think the modern storytelling ‘style’ is much stronger than what we see in the Silver Age, I wish contemporary creators could learn a thing or two from Binder and Boring about compression. They also might find themselves learning something about telling human stories, stories that feel like superhero epics in their scope and sense of magic and hope, but that stay with us because of the big and frightening questions they ask.

 

 

 

3 responses to “CHRONICLES OF COMICS – SUPERMAN #140 – ‘THE SON OF BIZARRO!’

  1. Excellent post! I’ve been reading a lot of Silver Age recently — particularly mid-60s Batman — as research for a project I’m working on, so I can try to nail an authentic Silver Age tone and voice in the storytelling.

    While, yeah, there’s a fair bit of hokum in those old gems, there’s also a lot of charm and storytelling prowess that I don’t think a lot of today’s creators are up to the task of not being able to just ramble through the indvidual comics with no sense of pacing, as long as it all hangs together reasonably well in the trade edition.

    One thing that always amazes me in older comics is how hard they worked to try to make them accessible to anyone who just happened to pick up a random issue. In the Batmans and Detectives I’ve been reading, if Bruce or Dick appears out of costume, they practically put a giant arrow in the panel with the text “Batman” or “Robin” in them. All of todays comics are so heavily built on continuity and the assumption that the reader is going to suss out all the details for themselves.

    • It’s a whole thing. It’s very hard for me to tackle, but I honestly think about it all the time. I don’t want to just rehash things smarter people have said, but I go back to two things more or less said by Grant Morrison. Basically, he says how today’s superhero comics are about superheroes, whereas the Silver Age used superheroes to talk about what it mean to be human. Superman was always turning old, or losing his friends, or getting fat, or being forgotten – it’s always about things we all worry about. Secondly, Morrison says when he’s working on his on stories, he wants fantastic, unbelievable stories with emotionally realistic characters. I think that’s something the Silver Age comics did perfectly. Sure, there’s insane and frequent coincidences, the stories are bizarre and surreal, the dialogue is stilted and wooden, and the characters are pretty lifeless…but they honestly are passionately moral, emotionally realistic and surprisingly moving.
      Anyway, it’s a huge topic, but thanks for leaving such a well thought out comment!

      • Spot on about the human element. Note that the vast majority of characters don’t even bother with secret identities any more, because that’s too hokey or difficult to believe that someone wouldn’t just figure that out. Creators have eliminated the restrictions and ‘rules’, like having to have the character go out of their way to protect their secret identities, which would be fine . . . but then they’ve fallen into predictable patterns where it’s a handful of plot elements that just keep getting reconfigured. Having the Avengers’ or JLA line-up doesn’t change much when it’s still the same faces you already know. And especially with villains, all the creators are so on their high horse of not ‘giving’ away creations that even that method of building up suspense is lost. There’s only so many times you can work your way through the rogues’ gallery before it makes you stifle a yawn. Because we don’t want to repeat the same mistake Todd McFarlane made twenty years ago with Venom and making a crazy-popular character, better save that for our creator-owned Image work and the movie deal.

        Marvel, whom I normally like, is getting really bad with going back to the same well repeatedly: for example, the concept of time travel as a central plot device across multiple books recently, like this is some novel concept that just now occurred to them (and it makes you wonder if someone’s not sitting there saying, you know, the kids really like that Doctor Who nowadays . . . we can’t really make Wolverine British or look like Matt Smith, but we can send him into the past!) Ditto now with the whole cosmic angle because Guardians of the Galaxy is coming. By the time we get to Thanos in Avengers 2 or Days of Future Past in the next X-film, Marvel comic books are going to have made the diehards so tired of those ideas because that’s all the writers seem to want to use in the comics themselves. Everyone’s Googling ‘Days of Future Past’: quick, time travel! We’ll sell more comics that way. People went nuts over Thanos at the end of Avengers: give him his own monthly series and put him in as many books as possible.

        Or maybe we just liked the idea of seeing the Avengers go up against Thanos for a two hour spectactle a couple years from now.

        So much of the stuff that makes comics charming and fun — thought balloons, the sometime overwrought narration — has been ditched in favor of making them ‘cool’ and cinematic. The creative process for these old books where they didn’t have the luxury of a second chance in the trade or weren’t part of an ‘essential’ event made the individual stories at least try harder.

        I have to admit between rediscovering these old gems and slogging through Age of Ultron, which is the single WORST embodiment of everything that sucks about the modern style of marketing-driven, decompressed waste-your-time-while-you-buy-more-comics storytelling, I’m starting to really re-evaulate what I’m reading on a monthly basis.

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